Monday, April 21, 2008

Political Biography: A Journalist's Dilemma

The revelation in today's Independent that John Prescott's biographer Colin Brown knew about his builimia but decided not to write about it in the book raises a few interesting questions about the art of political biography itself. If you're writing a biography of someone, is it not cheating the reader if you don't give the full story? If the reader has shelled out £18.99 shouldn't he or she expect to read about something which clearly had a huge effect on the former Deputy PM. Shouldn't the publisher have a right to expect total transparency?

Colin explains the omission by saying it would have "broken a confidence", a laudable reason in itself we'd probably all agree, but another understandable reason would be that breaking the confidence would in all probability have cost him one of his best sources for stories.

I have long thought it very difficult for lobby journalists to write proper authorised biographies as inevitably compromises have to made along the way. Yet it's also clear that they are the people best place to add the colour and anecdote that biographies written by historians or academics so often lack. I guess we should read them all with a health warning in our minds.


James Higham said...

I prefer unauthorized bios as it seems somehow possibly closer to the truth.

Anonymous said...

The problem is simple. The complete story can never be told until after the death of the subject. Personally I never bother with biography of the living for the reason you suggest. You never get the full story. Also people have to be careful of the libel laws. As a publisher, I am surprised you did not point this out.

And of course the reason this has come out now is to sell the book as Fawkes pointed out yesterday.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that you haven't promoted this clip on Boris discussing section 28 Iain.

Anonymous said...

It's not a proper biography if you fail to document important aspects of someone's life, surely!

Newmania said...

I `m staggered that you can discuss John Prescott`s Bulimia soi disant with a straight face. I saw you play it "concerned” on Marr which is understandable but come on....
Dyslexia and stupid have already been damagingly confused as has “Depression “and miserable so now its bulimia and greedy.
The standard boring celeb biog includes some spurious claim to Illness .Colin Jackson’s anorexia (= losing weight to perform ) and almost every footballer's alcoholism which anyone else would call drinking too much.

This is no more than a publishing gimmick ,Prescott does not have “issues of self esteem” and did not overwork. As far as stress is concerned studies of the civil service show that those who work in the middle ranks suffer stress whilst those at the top have a relatively relaxed time, working less and feeling better about themselves ,exactly as you would expect.

The subject of how he used his position to assist his son’s career in property development is the sort of revelation I would be interested in but you can rest assured that will not come out . I think mini Prescott is one of the runners for Hull East ,I doubt he will be disgorging the doubloons he made out of planning permission contacts .

Bulimia pah !... He made about as good a job of that as he did everything else

Anonymous said...


Please don't perpetuate this nonsense that Prescott is bulimic. He is a glutton, that's all. A glutton who followed the Roman practice of vomiting so he could force even more food down his huge maw.

Bulimics don't throw up just to eat more food - theirs is a complex and distressing ailment. Fatso Prescott insults people who truly have bulimia by his fantastic, and utterly false, claim.

Scipio said...

I just don't buy into this 'it was the stress which made me develop Bulimia' nonsense.

He says that he would stuff himself stupid with 'any old crap', then go make himself vomit, then eat some more.

Isn't that exactly what the Romans did during their orgies? eat to excess, puke, then eat to excess again!

Sorry - but I despise the man, and maybe this is blinding me to a genuine problem, but it seems to me that Prescott is simply a gluttonous cretin who cannot control his appetites (for food, or it would seem, for sex), and is simply looking for an excuse for his behaviour.

Oh - and a way of promoting his (doubtless not worth the effort of reading) biography!

Unsworth said...

So when does a biography become a hagiography? When written by Colin Brown, perhaps?

Good biographers have a measure of personal integrity which may prove uncomfortable from time to time.

Scipio said...

Zeno - I'm with you. If there is a disorder called Bulemia (and there probably is), Prescott doesn't (IMHO) have it. He is just a wanton glutton who cannot control himself.

Given the way he has spent his entire career screwing us over, and the way he has used his office and the tax payer's largesse to build up his son's personal wealth, I wouldn't feel a moment of sympathy with this oaf.

Sorry - but this man makes my blood boil!

Anonymous said...

I have just read a revealing article about the writing of biographies in the New York Times Sunday Book Review entitled "Bio Engineering".

It is about biographies of authors, but it casts a lot of light on the dilemmas of writing living accounts.

Here is an extract:

“I must say I have been glad to work with the safely dead,” said Hermione Lee, a biographer of Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather. Blake Bailey, who wrote a biography of Richard Yates and is currently working on a life of John Cheever, agrees. With a living subject, “I would have a hard time writing a single page without worrying what the consequences might be ... and would almost certainly end up diluting the content somewhat,” Bailey observed in an e-mail message. “I wonder if Gerald Clarke,” whose biography of Truman Capote first appeared in 1988, “would have told about how Capote hired thugs to terrorize and physically intimidate his lovers if Capote were still around to lie and be charming about it.”

So there you are. Samuel Beckett was keen to introduce his biographer to his friends,adding that "You won't have any difficulties finding my enemies."

On a personal note, I recently became embroiled in what turned out to be a bizzarre lesson in learning the truth about a certain aquaintance of an aqauintance. Unbeknown to each other several people pronounced on a minor scandal affecting one person. This one person also gave their view. I was watching submissions from all sides as an uninterested party. The strange part of it was that they could have been telling different stories about completely different people.

Trixy said...

But Colin is a lovely guy.

And maybe he didn't actually believe this nonsense about Prescott having bulimia.

I don't and I've suffered from it.

Anonymous said...

Newmania said .. "I think mini Prescott is one of the runners for Hull East"

Not any more. They have selected Karl Turner as their candidate.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's not in the biography because it isn't true?

Anonymous said...

"Dyslexia and stupid have already been damagingly confused"

Yes, newmania, but then having dyslexia doesn't necessarily mean you're not stupid. It's possible to be both. Wouldn't you say?

Anonymous said...

Howard, no need to refer to Fawkes. Many of us here's on Iain's spent quite a lot of time making this set-up clear yesterday.

Not only is the idea that Prescott is suffering from any mental ailment, other than inexplicable self-esteem, absurd but the absurdity and bare-faced attempts at manipulation are even more apparent when you consider his age. How many people in their sixties have bulimia? Perhaps the compliant doctor in the House of Commons could let us know?

As Adrian Yelland writes, he's just a glutton who can't control his appetite and sense of entitlement for food or sex or power or, indeed, violence - when he punched that voter who insulted him. This is an individual with no discipline and no self-control. His book will be a failure because 1) people aren't that stupid and 2) there is no appetite for books about socialist apparachiks. All their biographies have failed. At each launch, the public yawns and switches on the footie.

Anonymous said...

"And maybe he didn't actually believe this nonsense about Prescott having bulimia.

I don't and I've suffered from it."

If your blog is anything to go by, you must have thrown up your brains as well as your food.

Scipio said...

Oooh Verity - I like the bit about 'sense of entitlement'! Wish I had thought of that! It is very true of him. Well said.

I heard an allegation about Prescott recently from a source which is impeccable (and has no history of, or a reason to fib), which if it became public knowledge would destroy the remainder of the man's credibility.

Sadly, I cannot say what it is as I cannot stand it up. But it involves the reason why he was fired from his job as a ferry steward.

He used to claim he was fired was for trying to unionise the workforce. This is (allegedly) according to the MD of Prescott's former employer not true.

However, faced with Prescott's claims about him being sacked for unionisng the workers, his former employees (allegedly) wrote to Prescott threatening to release his letter of dismissal, which contained the real reasons for his dismissal. Needless to say, he stopped commenting about why he was sacked because he (allegedly) doesn't want the letter released.

The real (alleged) reason he was sacked (according to the source) sadly cannot be divulged because it cannot be stood up. But, if true, it isn't very edifying and would deeply embarrass him.

Anonymous said...

I was waiting for the headline in the NOTW - 'PRESCOTT BATTLES BULIMIA, BULIMIA WINS'.

What a fat lying b*tard he really is. I can tell you, of the (admittedly) limited political functions where I have had the misfortune to be in the same room as Two Jags, he certainly wasn't running to the bathroom to stick his fingers down his throat.

I bet Nicholas Soames was crying over his toast and muffins reading that one.

Rush-is-Right said...

There's a lovely article by humorist Craig Brown in the telegraph today,